Muslim teenager Hala copes with the unraveling of her family as she comes into her own.
Hala, from writer-director Minhal Baig, is a wonderfully insightful, poignant film. Following its title character, beautifully portrayed by Geraldine Viswanathan, we follow a young woman as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of self-discovery while also being raised a conservative Pakistani Muslim in America. That would be a full plate on its own, but she is also coming to terms with herself, her desires outside the confines of her upbringing and what it is to be true to oneself.
The film begins with Hala, in the bathtub enjoying some quiet time when her mother Eram (Purbi Joshi), wraps on the door telling her she missed morning prayer. Her father Zahid (Azad Khan) is far more understanding and laidback, chatting about crossword puzzles and discussing world literature. Hala is a writer you see. Her love is the written word and self-exploration. There is no other place that she seems to come to life more than in her composition class taught by Mr. Lawrence (Gabriel Luna). It also helps that her non-Muslim crush Jesse (Jack Kilmer), sits two rows behind her.
“…a young woman as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of self-discovery while also being raised a conservative Pakistani Muslim in America.”
Snaking around her parent’s invasive questioning, Hala begins hanging out at the skate park to see the boy she likes. Then she and Jesse start to hang out. They have endless discussions on literature, philosophy, and the two are very sincerely enamored with one another. Of course, her parents could never know. In fact, in one scene another Muslim couple brings their son over to Hala’s home for dinner, light conversation about the woman’s place in society, and a heaping helping of arranged marriage talk.
As Hala struggles with her secret life, she makes other rather alarming discoveries about those she looked up to, listened to, and believed. This, in turn, makes her question who she is and where she is going. It’s not the big plot points that are most effective, but the ones in between. The recoil and reflection that allows Viswanathan to soak up screentime and watch her emote without a word.
“…crafted a remarkable feature as she captures life as a Muslim in America without the caustic lens of prejudice.”
Minhal Baig has crafted a remarkable feature as she captures life as a Muslim in America without the caustic lens of prejudice. The trite plot device of discrimination is all but abandoned in favor of introspective themes of belonging. It’s not all perfection to be sure; there are a few threads in the plot that seem to instantly disappear like a teenage attention span. There are other questionable moments that leave us scratching our head in the third act of the film thinking that could have easily been rounded out to leverage better balance in the otherwise disciplined narrative.
This is what teenagers go through every day, we’ve all been there, and this feels fresh, as we have a female protagonist that is definitely more than what she is told she should be and ultimately rewarded for it. Hala is a breath of fresh air that reminds us that as long as we live authentically, with compassion and understanding, the world around us is far easier to deal with.
Hala (2019) Written and Directed by Minhal Baig. Starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Purbi Joshi, Azad Khan, Jack Kilmer, Gabriel Luna. Hala screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars